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Louisiana Prisons Present Immense Environmental Dangers

by Daniel Horowitz

For many people it will come as no surprise that Louisiana has an extensive prison system. Considered the world’s prison capital, the state imprisons more adults per capita than any other state in the U.S. With 132 detention facilities and more than 30,000 prisoners throughout the state, calls for prison reform have been rampant.

While the prison-industrial complex in Louisiana presents many concerns, one that is particularly important – and often overlooked – is the environmental impact that these facilities have. If opponents of the current prison system in Louisiana and the U.S. want to achieve holistic prison reform, the environmental degradation caused by these facilities must be considered.

Prison facilities can have major, direct impacts on their surrounding ecosystems. Factors serving as environmental hazards to areas surrounding prisons include improper wastewater treatment, poor asbestos management and negligent hazardous waste and trash disposal. These same hazards, along with other contributing issues, can also cause internal problems that can harm the health of prisoners and prison employees.

The level of accountability for the management of these facilities is low, and this perpetuates the environmental degradation and public health risks posed by prisons.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) database shows how facilities have been compliant with federal regulations such as the Clean Water Act (CWA), the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) over time. Facility reports on ECHO demonstrate the noncompliance of facilities in upholding federal regulations.

According to ECHO, the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola has been noncompliant with the SDWA for approximately three years. The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) was involved in enforcement actions but did not go further than informal reminder notices. No action has been taken since 2014, but Angola has remained noncompliant with the SDWA.

The Louisiana Department of Corrections has likewise proven to be noncompliant with the CWA for several months for actions such as improper record keeping, operation and maintenance, and monitoring for non-toxicity requirements. Like Angola, the Louisiana DOC has only been subject to informal actions by the state DEQ.

These trends are not exclusive to Louisiana prisons. Centinela State Prison in southern California has a history of noncompliance in both the SDWA and the CWA. Formal actions have been taken against the facility, but the only monetary penalty was minimal, and no evaluations have been conducted at Centinela since 2015. Mt. Meigs, a youth corrections facility in Alabama, has three years’ worth of significant CWA violations, but no formal penalties have been issued. Otisville Federal Correctional Facility in New York has violated both the CWA and the SDWA, yet New York State has only issued informal enforcement actions.

ECHO indicates that harmful bacteria and chemicals such as E. coli, coliform, arsenic and other carbonaceous bacteria have been found in water samples from these facilities. All actions against them appear to have had little-to-no effect on their overall quality.

We cannot allow detention facilities to pollute their environments. We cannot stand by as thousands of people are crammed into prisons and harmed by their environmental conditions.

It is imperative that the EPA and state environmental agencies enforce environmental regulations and hold facilities accountable for their actions. The EPA offers multiple resources that can help facilities comply with regulations. Prisons can use these resources and work with the EPA, regional EPA offices and state environmental agencies to find effective solutions to the various problems they currently present.

While advocates for prison reform attempt to end the era of mass incarceration, they must also look at the ecological problems prisons pose to ensure the possibility of holistic reform. 

The author, Daniel Horowitz, is a senior at Newcomb-Tulane College. This opinion article was originally published by The Tulane Hullabaloo ( on August 27, 2017; it is reprinted with permission with minor edits, and does not reflect the views of The Tulane Hullabaloo.


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